BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Technology  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Friday, 4 October, 2002, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
America bids to become net watchdog
Bill Thompson, BBC
The US should not be allowed to decide what is permitted on the internet and what is not, argues technology consultant Bill Thompson.

Christopher Cox is the Republican member of the US House of Representatives for Orange County in California.

He is a powerful, influential and well-connected man, a member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy and the chair of the House Policy Committee.

He was behind the US Internet Tax Non-Discrimination Act which stops US authorities taxing online commerce differently from offline commerce. He knows something about the internet and how important it is.

Mr Cox is also a patriot. You can tell this from his official website where you can order a US flag that has been flown over the Capitol building in Washington.

Rights and wrongs

He also believes that the American way is the only way, as seen by his latest venture into lawmaking: the Global Internet Freedom Act.

This bill that would empower the US Government and its agencies to combat any attempt to restrict what can be seen or said on the internet, anywhere.

The assumption that the US is the world authority on what behaviour is appropriate online is arrogant and indefensible

Bill Thompson

Under the bill the US would develop what is called anti-censor software, monitor state censorship of the net and seek to prevent people in other countries who get round this censorship from being prosecuted.

The US Government radio station, Voice of America, is routinely jammed by countries where its message is unwelcome. Over the years the US has invested heavily in anti-jamming technology in an attempt to get around this blocking.

Now Mr Cox wants to create an Office of Global Internet Freedom to "combat state-sponsored and state-directed internet jamming".

To Mr Cox this is about freedom of speech - the sacred text of the First Amendment - and not just making sure that the US message that government does not work and unfettered free market capitalism is the only acceptable economic model spreads around the world.

Control freak

But the effect of his bill will be to turn the US into the arbiter of what sort of control is acceptable online. If a country blocks US propaganda it will be targeted, but presumably those who censor the websites of the anti-globalisation movement will be a lower priority.

There are some good ideas in this bill. The best is calling for the United Nations to formally condemn those governments that practice censorship and deny freedom to access and share information.

Persuading governments that freedom of speech is important online as well as offline is hard, and if a UN resolution helps then it is to be applauded.


The Cox bill..., assumes that the United States is the only arbiter of what counts as censorship.

Bill Thompson
However, there are some pretty bad ones too. The idea that the US Government will develop and deploy software to break through firewalls, open up web access and allow secret communication, and then make that software widely available to anyone who wants, sounds appealing.

But how long will it be before the hacker community gets their hands on this stuff and starts using it to get round the censorship that stops them getting into bank systems?

How long before those interested in making and distributing child pornography realise that the tools that protect political dissidents from being discovered in China also protect them from being caught by the police?

The assumption that censorship - any restriction on freedom of speech - is always wrong, and that the US is the world authority on what behaviour is appropriate online is arrogant and indefensible.

Imperial talker

There is no chance this bill will become law. We are too close to the end of the legislative session. It is, at best, a marker that the issue will be raised again next year, an attempt to drum up support.

But it worth questioning its core assumptions now, so that we can oppose this sort of intimidatory legislation more effectively in future.

Google logo, Google
Google has been censored in some countries
Although I support freedom of speech, and completely oppose the sorts of restrictions on internet use that China, Singapore and others impose, I also accept that sovereign nations have the right to decide for themselves what is or is not appropriate and suitable.

In many countries pictures of naked women are both illegal and socially unacceptable.

In many countries statements critical of the state religion can put you in jail.

Even here in the United Kingdom, blasphemy against Christianity is still a criminal offence. If I publish James Kirkup's poem, The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, I could be charged with an offence.

So what control is reasonable and what is not? What limits on published material are acceptable and which go too far? What is state censorship and what is the enforcement of community standards?

The Cox bill is wrong, not because it seeks to encourage freedom of expression and communication, but because it assumes that the United States is the only arbiter of what counts as censorship.

Just as only the US believes it is allowed to decide what sort of government Iraq should have, so, it seems, only the US is allowed to tell us what sort of freedoms we need online.

I, for one, do not accept this.

Send us your comments:
Name:

Your E-mail Address:


Country:

Comments:

Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



INTERNET LINKS
See also:

23 Sep 02 | Business
08 Oct 01 | Americas
03 Nov 01 | Middle East
23 Sep 02 | Politics
14 Oct 01 | BH
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Technology stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Technology stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes